I am ugly, stupid, ___ (fill in the blank). When is the last time you heard that nagging voice in the back of your head? We can all be incredibly hard on ourselves. With constant exposure to social media, pressure to fit into a peer group, demands from parents and coaches, and other stressors, teens nowadays are particularly vulnerable to being self-critical.
In recent workshops in Madrid, Spain, I discussed with middle school students and their parents how self-esteem is critical to feeling good about oneself and handling life’s challenges. If your child or teen is regularly tough on themselves, there are clear steps to help them change. Here are some strategies to use, based on this article.
1. Reframe it. When you hear your child or teen put themselves down, ask non- judgmental questions that can help them check themselves. For example, if they say, “I know I’ll never pass this exam or I won’t get into a good college or university” ask, “please help me to understand this”. Remind them of the evidence that doesn’t support their fears. Then, figure out how you can switch their sentiment to something more positive or affirming such as “I have a good chance of passing this test, if I study for it” or “There are many strong university options out there for me. There isn’t one perfect school.” Research shows that what we think affects how we feel and how feel affects how we act. As such, regular negative self-talk can lead to depression and anxiety. Finally, challenge children to find humor in the situation and see if they can laugh about it. It is all about rewiring and rerouting the inner critic!
2. Make it strength based. Often, kids compare themselves to what others are doing or have (particularly high frequency users of social media). Using a strength-based approach has been shown to change behavior as mentioned in our previous post on the SSHADES interview. Have your teen make a list of their strengths of their unique abilities, or what they like about themselves. If they can’t come up with strengths, ask what their friends or family would say about them. I have found this approach very useful in clinical, classroom and home situations. Finally encourage them to look back at their list from time to time to counter negative self-talk and comparisons.
3. Give praise-Often, adults can be very critical of young people and what they are doing wrong-their use of screen time, choice of peer group, level of focus on academics, their ability to handle frustration, the list goes on. Take time to mention what they are doing right and the obstacles that they may have navigated successfully. For example, when a kid completes a task successfully, remind them “I really like that you were able to finish your assignment on time” or “I like how you cleared the dirty dishes from the table” or “that was a great save you made at the end of the soccer match”. Note, teens with an active inner critic may tend to discount or deflect praise from others. If so, encourage your teen to accept compliments or praise, in addition to giving it. Consider keeping a family or classroom compliment box which you can read aloud from regularly.
4. Start Writing. Journaling is a great exercise for kids that enjoy writing as we mentioned in a previous post. It can also help with overcoming self-doubt. Suggest that your teen write down their self-critical feelings and why the statements may not be true. Alternatively, ask them to write down their daily experiences-what’s positive and what’s been challenging. Then ask them to revisit their journals a few weeks to months later to get perspective and a more balanced approach.
These are a few ways to start improving the inner critic chatter. If your child or teen has started unhealthy eating patterns such as restricting or binging, has serious anxiety, started cutting, considered suicide or is chronically depressed, then it’s time to consider professional help. Hopefully, by addressing self-talk early on by reframing negative speak, identifying strengths, praising progress, and journaling concerns, you can help your kid to build a positive self-image and feel good about him or herself.
For other tips on building positive self-esteem: